Social and Political Feminist Art

Updated November 16, 2012

Feminist Activism Part 2

Art has always been seen as an individual’s point of view on how he or she deciphers an idea, an element (i.e. nature, water, fire), or a belief (i.e. religious).  But if politics or activism is intermingled with art, does it then lose its individual viewpoint and artistic freedom and shift to conform to the point of view of a general group, in particular, feminism?  Does it then become a form of propaganda?  Amy Mullin believed that feminist artwork that is political is socially concerned. She also stated that feminist art that placed emphasis on activism is art that is socially involved.  These two ideals categorizes feminist art in order for its viewers as well as the artists who create them to understand the ultimate goal.  One class of art brings attention to and the other class encouraged and advocated change via a hands-on approach. [1] There are many people who think art and politics do not mix and that politics should not be seen in the realm of art.  They feel as though it is not the responsibility of the artist to desire changes politically.  Additionally, it is a strong notion that artists have no business working with activists when producing art.  Some may go as far to say that political and activist art hinders and threatens artistic freedom. On the other hand, viewers of feminist art who do not see any problem with activism in art, pay little to no attention to the art itself.  Rather, they tend to look for the meaning being portrayed: What is the social consciousness of this piece desiring reform?

In response to 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition’s opening piece from Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Red, critic and curator, Maria Elena Buszek, stated, “The piece, with its center slit and protruding folds, poetically represents the vulvic motifs prominent in the work of this generation of women artists as symbolic of the sex that defined both their power and powerlessness--across class, race, and even gender identities--as they audaciously stormed the male-dominated fortresses of art.” [2]  Buszek’s quote, I believe, sums up, to a certain degree, feminist art as a crusader of political and social issues concerning women.  It also foretells how feminist art would evolve, in a way, from art that focuses solely on the traditional roles of women as wife, mother, and sexual objects to gender inequality and discrimination on different levels.
Suzanne Lacy

Suzanne Lacy is an American feminist artist who displays her work primarily by installations, videos, and large-scale performances.  Lacy's work focuses on women’s issues such as women’s safety in relation to rape and domestic violence.  Her work was produced and displayed as political performance art.  In her 1980 performance art, Boycott Performance, Lacy joined with other women who were advocating the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, which never passed.  Therefore, laws were non-existent for equals rights particularly for women.

Lacy also produced the performance In Mourning and In Rage. The performance brought attention to the victims of the “Hillside Strangler” and how their lives were overdramatized by news media in Los Angeles in 1977. [3] In Mourning and In Rage conveyed a feminist perspective on violence against women.  The city took note and supported the message of fighting all types of violent acts against women.

Lacy's large-scale performances puts the act in activism.  The performances visually conveys how she feels about how issues regarding women are portrayed  and she takes an active role in standing up against, being vocal about, and expecting change in gender inequality.

Carole Conde and Karl Beveridge

Carol Conde and Karl Beveridge are Canadian artists whose work is primarily of activism.  They have created a series of art called Work in Progress.  The series began in 1980 to 2006 depicting women who were employed in various jobs from 1909 to 1979.  Additionally, each piece displayed an archival photo of political events that took place in different regions of the world.  Work In Progress displayed the progression and transformation of the roles of women in each decade from solely working in the home to finding untraditional jobs mainly held by men.  [4]

© Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge, 1909, from the series Work in Progress, 1980
In this photo, a woman is sewing at home while a picture of a slave trade is displayed in the window.  She is depicted as a homemaker with domestic duties. 

She appears to be content with what she is doing, most likely sewing.
© Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge, 1956, from the series Work in Progress, 1980
In this photo, a woman is dressed in her “blue collar” work uniform, appears to fade into the background.  The table is covered with items of a family breakfast.  The subject is holding a baby bottle in her hand.  A photo of the Hungarian uprising is displayed in the window.  A magazine, Star Weekly, with a picture of Marilyn Monroe rests on the the table.  

In each of the photos in the Work in Progress series, Conde and Beveridge continuously displays a calendar with a picture on the wall.  This is to show the the era in which the woman lived as well as to show the type of work the woman in the photo was employed in.  They also display a clock in each photo.  I believe it is to show that times were changing.  In each photo there is also a framed photo, which appears to be the woman's family.  Each framed picture conveys the change in family structure from married with no children, married with children, a young, single woman living with her family, a single, childless, independent middle-aged woman, a single mother, a widowed grandmother, a lesbian couple, and a high-powered, high-profile couple whose only child is being cared for by a nanny.
Their work is both political and social.  In Our Poverty is Their Power, 1992, Conde and Beveridge bring light to society’s attempt at keeping people enslaved in poverty to the point that they believe this will be their only way of life. [5]

In this photo, a (maybe) single mother is at the doctor’s office with her son.  The boy is laying down waiting to be examined with a Robin Hood book on his chest.  The mother is holding a welfare check up to her neck.  There are cartoon pictures of what appears to be Robin Hood and his partners in crime, stealing from a well-suited, presumably, rich, white man.  Spilled milk and cookies are falling.  Underneath that is a card that say , United we stand, Divided we fallA white man pulls back a curtain from the window and gives a thumbs up.  Outside the window, is a woman holding a sign, Job Security, On Strike, while standing in front of a factory.

Without feminist art, issues such as violence against women, gender inequalities, and gender discrimination would be overlooked and not taken seriously.  Feminist art is art that is vital to society as a whole.
[1] Mullin, Amy. 2003. “Feminist Art and the Political Imagination.”  Hypatia 18, no. 4: 191-196. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed November 2, 2012).

[2] Buszek, Maria Elena. 2008 “Women’s Work: WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution.” Journal of Modern Craft 1, no. 2: 293-297. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed November 2, 2012).

[3] Labowitz-Starus, Leslie. Lacy, Suzanne. 1978. “In Mourning and in Rage...” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 3, no. 1: 52-55. JStor (accessed November 4, 2012).

[4] Conde and Beveridge Portfolio Description.

[5] Conde and Beveridge Portfolio Description.

Updated November 16, 2012

Feminist Activism:  

Social and Political Art Through the Eyes of Women

For a long time, art was constructed and produced by men.  Their muse of choice were women.  Women were often painted and sculpted in the nude and usually sexualized.  So, women have only been seen, never heard; they were silent for a long time.  And with this silence was built up tension and unhappiness that would explode into what is now known as the feminist art movement.   Most art created by women are vastly different from art created by men.  The subject, or muse, is for the most part, the same: a woman.  When women artists began creating art depicting themselves, it was as if they were taking back control of who they wanted to be versus how they were viewed and what society thought they should be.  While women artists understood and knew exactly what a woman was going through, men artists could only imagine.  Their art, to me, could be labeled as ignorant art because men have never experienced what it is to be women.  Feminist artists created works that expanded past paintings.  It encompassed still life, portraiture, and landscapes, to name a few.  But, even though feminist art was great, it was often overlooked because the viewer did not know whose work they were viewing.  Feminist artists weren't known as well as, say, a Picasso.  However, once the art is identified, more people want to know about it. [1]

Gender Issues and Activism 

Gender inequality saw women who were equally qualified and holding the same positions as their male counterparts, earn significantly less.  Gender discrimination left women passed over for jobs and opportunities. This behavior and way of thinking was not limited to just the workplace.  It extended into the art world as well. [2] It was a hard time for women who wanted more out of life, with high hopes and dreams.  One of the ways to bring attention and reform was to speak out against it in the form of art.  The feminist movement originally began in the 1960s, organized by women who wanted to see and be the change needed in society with regard to women.  With the movement of feminism came the movement of feminist art.  It was and is through feminist art that societal issues concerning women are voiced.  Whether it was through paintings, performances, textual art, or film, gender inequality, discrimination, and human rights were brought to the forefront in a culture where women have often been viewed as second-class citizens. 
The artists behind the art were usually women, and some men, who were feminist.  Judy Chicago, who pioneered the feminist art movement, is famous for The Dinner Party which displayed constructed vaginas.  It caused an uproar in the political realm when former Republican Congressman Robert K. Dornan stated that Chicago’s work was “ceramic 3-D pornography.” [3]  Other feminist art pioneers such as Miriam Schapiro, created the Womanhouse project.  The Womanhouse project was a dollhouse exhibition that featured rooms in a house women would frequent.  Rooms like the kitchen, laundry room, and nursery were showcased.  The women were depicted differently from how their role was in reality.   An excerpt from the documentary Womanhouse displays the kitchen and the reactions of its observers. [4] Schaprio used “low art,” non-traditional art forms and materials such as patchwork and embroidery.  She used this method and material because it was viewed as womanly crafts in comparison to “high art,” art that was produced primarily using canvas and oil paint.  High art was also considered to be patriarchal or dominated by men.  Having her work displayed in galleries along side high art challenged the notion that art produced by women were not considered art at all.  I beg to differ.  Although art can be highly subjective, art should have meaning, a real purpose for creating it that goes beyond the pretty colors.  What is the message within the art?

Shirin Neshat 

Shirin Neshat was born in Qazvin, Iran on March 26, 1957.  Her family lived a comfortable life.  Her father was a popular doctor who believed his children should have the best education.  When Neshat was a child, he sent her to a boarding school operated by the Catholic Church in Tehran, Iran.  This was unusual because Neshat and her family were Muslim, not Christian.  She felt like the Catholic school environment was very strict and it became very difficult for her to assimilate.  She probably did not want to assimilate, but, rather, have her own identity.  She was raised by her father to be an individual and to take risks.  As a result, Neshat became an anorexic and often fell ill. [5]  Neshat’s father believed that Western education was a good thing.  In 1975, he sent her to Los Angeles, California, where her older sisters were studying, to complete her last year in high school.  Upon graduating from high school, Neshat moved to northern California, in the San Francisco Bay area where she studied at Dominican College.  She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley where she studied art.  After completing her master’s degree program, Neshat did not pursue art for ten years.  She stated, “I felt my ideas were confused and simply not strong enough.  Also, I wasn’t really inspired by the art history that I was exposed to.” [6]
Neshat moved to New York where she met and married her now ex-husband, Kyong Park.  He created an institution called the Storefront for Art and Architecture.  She worked with him on the administrative side.  Through her involvement with the organization, she met a vast amount of people who were still connected to the art.  There were philosophers, scientists, culture critics, architects, and, of course, artists.  Although Neshat did not want to pursue an art career, she was heavily surrounded by it and was influenced by it as well. [7]  
After her divorce from Park, Neshat took a trip back to Iran to visit family in 1990.  She was away for twelve years and was not prepared to see the results of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.  Upon returning, she witnessed a drastic change in Iran, a change that was completely different from the Iran she remembered.  She noticed the state of women in particular and how they were treated and viewed through the eyes of religion.  She wanted to understand what took place and why.  [8] 

After that and several other visits to Iran, Neshat discovered a subject she was passionate about—Islamic women in Iran.  Her first body of work was Women of Allah.  Neshat posed for the photographs in a black veil, with a gun.  Poetry written in Farsi was written across the face and bodies. These images depicted how Islamic women were repressed by their religious culture.  In the same photo, it also showed the power they possessed as Muslims and as women.   [9]  She then moved into film created works like Soliloquy Fervor, Rapture, and Women without Men.   Her work concentrates on the status of women living in an Islamic country.  She focuses on the how the Muslim religion separates the women from the men and how it, somehow, brings them together.  She also focuses on how women are viewed and treated by men and what they are prohibited from partaking in, such as education and employment.  Neshat, through her work and activism, has brought attention to the conditions in Iran that are overlooked by the Western world.  

Neshat lives in New York where she exhibits and is represented by the Barbara Gladstone Gallery.

Of her work, G. Roger Denson writes, “...a variation in the degrees to which two different cultures enforce the male legislation of gender and sexuality.” [10]  The feminist art movement tackled political and social issues.  Some critics might argue that feminist art isn’t art at all.  Writer Adda Birnir wrote in an article for the Yale Daily News that viewers of feminist art will only see feminism aspects in the art and miss the message within the art. [11]  But this is not the case.  Feminist art as activism brings light to women's issues that have been hiding in the dark.  Therefore, the are a voice to the speechless.

[1] Brand, Peg. 2006. "Feminist Art Epistemologies: Understanding Feminist Art." Hypatia 21, no. 3: 166-189. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost (accessed November 2, 2012).

[2] Lacayo, Richard, “What Women Have Done to Art,” Time Magazine,

[3] Lacayo, Richard, “What Women Have Done to Art,” Time Magazine,,8816,1601840,00.html (March 22, 2007).

[4] Video: Experience the Womanhouse Kitchen. Excerpt from the documentary film Womanhouse, 1974, directed by Johanna Demetrakas. The Getty Research Institute, 2896-034,

[5-9] MacDonald, Scott. Neshat, Shirin. 2004. “Between two Worlds: An Interview with Shirin Neshat.” Feminist Studies, vol. 30, no. 3, pp 620-659.

[10] Denson, G. Roger, “When Walls COme Falling Down: Left Political Art Timeline, 1989-2000,” The Huffington Post: Arts and Culture, (April 16, 2012). 

[11] Birnir, Adda, “Feminism blurs line between art, politics,” Yale Daily News, (April 17, 2007).

Tracey Thesis Topic

Anahi DeCanio

 I will focus on how feminist artists impacted and became a recognizable voice on political and social issues through art. Gender, Discrimination/ Equality, and Human Rights. 


  1. I’m so happy you chose to discuss Shirin Neshat as one of your artists. As an Iranian woman, I respect her and her art very much. She is a brave artist that pushes against the Islamic regime and speaks for repressed Iranian women. Great artists came out of Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Marjane Satrapi (created Persepolis comic book and movie) and Shadi Ghadirian (photographer whose work was exhibited at the Saatchi gallery) are also amazing artists that are worth looking at.

    1. Shiva, I totally agree with you. I really love Shirin Neshat's work and what it stands for. It's a different way of presenting photography/visual art, but it works. It is very powerful!

  2. Great coverage of the topic. The Guerilla Girl's billboard “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” is another feminist piece promoting the need for equality between women and men in the art world. Another piece of theirs I left as a link below. Thought you may enjoy that one as well. I also think what Adda Birnir wrote is interesting, and while has truth, it is irritating. I say that because I can certainly imagine some people who will walk up to a feminist art piece that asks for equality and that person will think “oh it's just some feminist propaganda” and then write off the real message of the art work. But times have been changing.

    1. Thanks Jenna. I did see the Guerilla's Girl's billboard. I agree with you on the Adda Birnir comment. There is a real message and activism that will go unnoticed because people want to write off anything pertaining to feminists.

  3. The second piece from Conde and Beveridge really spoke to me. In the first piece, the woman sewing looks sort of contented, but the woman in the second piece is most definitely not happy with her lot. She sits at a table that's full of clutter, and my first thought is of the unfairness of the expectation that she should take care of cleaning it all on her own. There are three place settings at the table; where are the people who sat there, and why didn't they clean up after themselves? On top of that duty, she's holding a baby bottle, another endless responsibility. I understand that many women in the midst of a situation like that feels her sense of self disappearing. Furthermore, momentous things are happening just outside her window, and it feels that she is unable to relate to or participate in any of the world outside her domestic domain. The fact that the inside world is in color and the outside is black and white feels contradictory, saying both "This house is my reality" and an ironic sense of "Why should I want more than this cheery world?"

    1. I love her work, too! The images say a lot of what women were going through and how their roles were changing over the years.

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